With colder weather on the way and city funds in short supply, the Eugene City Council on Tuesday night focused on three relatively inexpensive ways to help the homeless.
After hearing from a panel of local experts, the council indicated a willingness to provide a yet-to-be determined amount of money to prevent people from becoming homeless, increasing vehicle and tent camping spaces, and finding storage units where homeless people could keep their belongings.
“Winter is upon us, so we need to move rapidly on this,” Mayor Kitty Piercy said.
Also, a majority of councilors expressed support for the concept of a village-style housing area for the homeless, although the council has yet to select a city-owned site for that purpose.
Councilors and the mayor asked the directors of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, Catholic Community Services of Lane County and ShelterCare, and a pastor at First Christian Church, for ideas on what the city should do to alleviate homelessness during the harsh winter months.
Susan Ban of ShelterCare said Eugene-Springfield doesn’t have enough housing for the homeless.
“We aren’t anywhere close to meeting the needs of families with children in this community,” she said.
But Ban said the city could help by providing financial help to prevent people from being evicted or losing their homes.
With so-called “rapid rehousing funds,” ShelterCare last year was able to help 200 families with 600 children, she said.
Terry McDonald of St. Vincent de Paul, which operates a car camping program for the city, said expanding that program would serve more people at relatively little extra cost.
Tom Mulhern of Catholic Community Services said homeless people need a secure place to store their belongings.
Mulhern said Catholic Community Services on West Sixth Avenue could be a storage site, but that additional places should be found.
After hearing the discussion, City Manager Jon Ruiz told councilors that the three ideas combined could cost about $100,000 annually. He said city staff will return in the next few weeks with better cost estimates, although the additional expense would increase city budget pressures.
The councilors’ discussion took place in their first meeting in Harris Hall in the Lane County Public Service Building.
The council has been without its own meeting room since City Hall closed in August. For the last two months, council meetings have been held in the Bascom/Tykeson Room of the downtown Eugene Public Library.
A warning came during the homeless discussion.
McDonald said the city’s largest homeless shelter, the Eugene Mission, is adding beds but can’t keep up with the growing homeless population.
McDonald said he’s concerned that the Egan Warming Center, which St. Vincent de Paul manages, will not be able to handle the number of homeless people who will seek shelter there. The volunteer-dependent warming center operates in a handful of Eugene-Springfield area churches between Nov. 15 and March 31 when temperatures drop below 30 degrees.
The temporary shelters can serve about 200 people a night, but the numbers could hit 300 this winter, McDonald said. Additional warming center locations are needed, he said.
The panel also included the Rev. Dan Bryant of First Christian Church, who is chairman of Opportunity Village Eugene.
Bryant and others want to create a pilot housing area similar to Portland’s Dignity Village, where homeless people live in simply built structures on city-owned property.
The council hasn’t selected a location, but a 2.6-acre parcel on North Garfield near Roosevelt Boulevard has emerged as one possibility.
Bryant asked the council to support the housing area, which would be built and operated by volunteers and homeless residents.
“Not all homeless are criminals or drug addicts or severely mentally ill,” he said. “There are a lot of homeless people out on the street who are just poor.”
Later in the evening, during a public comment portion of the council meeting, several people from Portland who live at Dignity Village, or at an encampment for homeless people in downtown Portland called Right 2 Dream Too, asked councilors to support Opportunity Village Eugene.
“You have a strong group here that will mentor it all the way through,” said Brad Gibson, a resident and vice chairman of Dignity Village.
It’ll take a village
City industrial land could be a favored site for homeless settlement
Located in a Eugene industrial area without many residents, a city parcel on North Garfield Street may be the leading site for a homeless village.
The City Council on Wednesday narrowed a list to five municipally owned properties that are being considered as possible housing sites for the homeless. After receiving more information in the weeks ahead, councilors will decide whether to let a newly formed nonprofit group, Opportunity Village Eugene, use one of the sites for the unconventional housing area.
Opportunity Village Eugene advocates want to create a pilot housing area similar to Portland’s Dignity Village, where homeless people live in simply built cabins on city-owned property.
The 2.6-acre parcel on North Garfield, near Roosevelt Boulevard, isn’t near residential neighborhoods, like another oft-mentioned site — at 13th Avenue and Chambers Street. The other three sites are bunched together near Autzen Stadium.
Many residents who live near 13th Avenue and Chambers Street oppose a homeless village in their area.
The Rev. Dan Bryant, chairman of Opportunity Village Eugene, on Thursday said the group will analyze each of the five sites before deciding which ones it likes best.
However, the North Garfield parcel appears to have advantages that make it a leading contender, he said.
“We took a look at the North Garfield property and that is intriguing to us,” he said. “It used to be a trailer park, so there are utilities on the site that could be repurposed. And it’s in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of residences, so there wouldn’t be the same concerns that there are at West 13th and Chambers.”
The group envisions housing for 30 adults, with priority given to those with children, though homeless couples and people could live there, too.
The fenced city property on North Garfield Street is located in an industrial area, south of the Public Works Maintenance yard and the Police Department’s forensics lab.
Neighboring businesses include Consolidated Supply Co., a plumbing supply firm, and Coyote Steel.
A few people live across the street, including residents of the Garfield Trailer Park and Apartments, which is owned by St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County.
Resident Misty Frost said she wouldn’t mind a homeless village with children across the street. “I was homeless for awhile,” she said. “I was in St. Vinnie’s car camping program.”
Homelessness is “definitely an issue,” Frost added. “(Homeless people) need a place to go.”
If the property is used for a homeless village, it might only be for a short while.
The city bought the property eight years ago from the trailer park’s owner for $1.2 million, said Peggy Keppler, engineering development review manager.
The city plans to use the property to construct a 40,000-square-foot maintenance garage for city vehicles, Keppler said.
“It’s on our project list,” she said. “Once we get the funding, we would start construction.”
Claire Syrett, who was appointed Wednesday by the City Council to represent the North Garfield area and the rest of Ward 7, said nearby business owners should be consulted.
“We would want to talk to the property owners who do business in the area because they may have some concerns,” she said.
But Syrett said the site has “some positives that might make it a better option than some of the others.”
The other three sites are next to Interstate 105, near college student-oriented apartment complexes north of Autzen Stadium and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Northeast Councilor George Poling said he’s keeping an open mind about the village being located on one of those three sites in his ward.
Poling said he is concerned that the city will be stuck paying for utilities and other costs of the village, wherever it might be located.
And he’s worried the city could be liable if someone is hurt in the village.
But Poling said he’s mostly interested in knowing what nearby residents think about the housing proposal.
He said he will ask for input from the Harlow neighborhood association. “If they are opposed to it or favor it, that is the course that I will take,” Poling said.
Eugene homeless village options narrowed
Councilors scrutinize a list of 16 city-owned sites and pare it to five
A handful of possible homeless housing sites in Eugene include a property that had raised the hackles of residents and parcels along Interstate 105 not far from Autzen Stadium.
The City Council on Wednesday reviewed vacant city-owned properties that could be used for Dignity Village-type housing for the homeless.
The list presented by city officials initially had 16 city parcels, but the council whittled the possibilities to five after learning that 10 of the sites would have required zoning changes in order to accommodate housing. Councilors removed another one — the block that contains Eugene’s shuttered City Hall.
The remaining sites “look promising,” Councilor Alan Zelenka told Assistant City Manager Sarah Medary and city Grants Manager Michael Wisth. “Good work getting us down to that.”
Three of the potential sites are tucked along I-105, near the college student-oriented apartment complexes north of Autzen Stadium and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Another is the former Naval Reserve Center at West 13th Avenue and Chambers Street, not far from Cesar Chavez Elementary School. Many residents last summer objected when homeless advocates began touting the three-acre parcel as an ideal place for a homeless village.
The fifth site is a 2.6-acre parcel located in an industrial area on North Garfield Street, near the city’s Public Works Department on Roosevelt Boulevard.
Advocates for Opportunity Village Eugene want to create a pilot housing area similar to Portland’s Dignity Village, where homeless people live in simply built cabins on city-owned property.
The Rev. Dan Bryant of First Christian Church and other advocates have asked the city for the past several months to provide land so volunteers can build similar housing.
“It’s just good now to finally have a list to work with,” said Bryant, who attended the council meeting.
Resident Pat Waters, who lives near West 13th Avenue and Chambers Street, on Wednesday said he was frustrated and surprised that the Naval Reserve site is still considered a possibility. “Neighborhood concerns have basically been ignored,” he said.
Opportunity Village Eugene was inspired by Dignity Village, but there are some major differences between the two.
Dignity Village allows only adult residents, and it’s near the Portland International Airport, away from residences.
Opportunity Village Eugene would accommodate 30 adults, with priority given to those with children, and homeless couples and individuals could live there.
Opportunity Village Eugene proponents also want the housing to be in residential areas, close to public services, including schools.
Waters, who lives near Cesar Chavez School, said if Opportunity Village Eugene supporters want to follow the Dignity Village model, “it should be placed outside the urban area, not right next to a school, and not right inside a neighborhood.”
Waters said residents will resume writing and lobbying the Eugene School Board, Mayor Kitty Piercy and City Council in order to block use of the West 13th and Chambers Street site for homeless housing. The school is located on West 14th Avenue.
Councilors two weeks ago asked city staff to provide a list of possible places to locate the homeless housing area. Potential sites had to be city-owned, be at least one acre in size, be close to public transportation and bike paths, and be served by utilities. Councilors eliminated city parks from consideration.
Councilors on Wednesday said they are not committed to approving a Dignity Village-type complex, only that they are interested in learning where it could be located and whether it could meet state laws and local regulations.
Councilors asked city staff to see if there are “fatal flaws” that would prevent any of the sites from being used for homeless housing.
Northeast Councilor George Poling, who represents the I-105 area where three of the potential parcels are located, noted that those sites are near large power lines and an electric substation. He asked Wisth to research if the electrical emissions from the power lines could be a health hazard to people who live near them.
Another meeting to discuss the housing sites had yet to be scheduled.
In a related discussion, the council reviewed “winter homelessness strategies” that could cost about $200,000 to implement.
A temporary winter shelter for the homeless could cost $80,000, councilors were told. For $50,000, St. Vincent De Paul could provide extra vehicle and tent camping for the homeless.
And for $10,000 to $25,000, the city could provide financial help to people so they won’t become homeless.
The council on Nov. 13 will meet with a panel of social service providers to help them decide on the strategies.
“I urge you to move on this as soon as possible,” Mayor Piercy told councilors.
Home, sweet home
Homeless advocates look to Dignity Village in Portland as a possible model for a similar program in Eugene
PORTLAND — They live in a small, cluttered cabin without electricity or water, but Lisa Larson and Scott Layman aren’t complaining.
Just the opposite; they are grateful.
The couple once lived on the streets, sleeping in tents and abandoned houses. Now they reside in Dignity Village, an unconventional housing area for homeless people in Portland.
“I like to say that we are the homeless 1 percent,” Layman said. “We have a place that is safe, secure and dry.”
Dignity Village is considered a success by homeless advocates and Portland officials, though city officials want village leaders to start limiting how long people can live there.
People who want to create something similar in Eugene see Dignity Village as an example, but the advocates want the Eugene housing area to differ in a couple of ways.
Dignity Village is located away from residential neighborhoods in northeast Portland.
The complex is on about 2 acres of asphalt at a city leaf composting yard in an industrial area near the Portland International Airport. It consists of 43 rudimentary cabins and a handful of other structures, all of them built during the past 11 years by homeless people and volunteers.
The city of Portland provides the site to the village without charge. A nonprofit group, which includes residents on its governing board, operates the camp and pays its bills, mainly utilities and liability insurance.
The complex currently provides homes for 55 people. It also allows homeless people from outside the village to use its facilities during the day.
Advocates for the homeless in Eugene hope to build something similar, though the yet-to-be built housing area called Opportunity Village Eugene would provide temporary, transitional housing for homeless adults and their children.
That’s different from Dignity Village, which has allowed people to stay longer than two years.
Dignity Village also only allows adult residents.
“If you have been on the streets for any length of time, you have a criminal background,” said Brad Gibson, a resident and vice chairman of the Dignity Village board. “That’s one of the reasons why we can’t have kids here.”
A moveable village
The cabins and other buildings at Dignity Village are an eclectic mix of structures, all of them relatively small. Besides the cabins, the village includes a community room, greenhouse, an outdoor kitchen and several raised-bed gardens.
All of the structures were built to comply with city structural building codes, with one exception: The buildings were constructed 18 inches off the ground without permanent foundations at the request of the city so they could easily be moved.
The cabins don’t have electricity or plumbing.
Murals, with animals and landscapes, adorn the outside of a few cabins and other buildings.
Most residents keep their cabins tidy. Some fill their homes with junk.
The focal point of the village is the community room where, on a recent cool afternoon, a few men and women were enjoying the heat from the wood stove, watching a large TV or using computers.
With long, brown-gray hair and a bushy beard, a one-legged man in a wheelchair said he had been beaten up and pushed off a cliff before coming to Dignity Village.
“I ain’t supposed to be alive,” said the man, named Tumbleweed. “Thank God for Dignity Village.”
A safe place to live
Life in the village is mostly congenial, residents say. Yet conflicts can erupt.
“Everybody has their own little island and the way they want to live,” said Gibson, 53. “Some people may want this and some people want that. And sometimes they collide.”
“All in all it’s OK,” he added. “We may squabble among ourselves, but what it comes down to is that it’s a community and we all strive together.”
The village doesn’t allow drinking, drugs or violence. People occasionally are expelled for violating the rules.
Security is a priority, residents say. The village is enclosed by a cyclone fence, and visitors must register at the front gate and be escorted wherever they go.
Homeless people who don’t live at Dignity Village can visit the community room during the day, but they are not allowed to wander around the area.
Larson, who is in charge of security, said some of the women residents had been beaten by their former partners, and the security precautions help protect them.
Layman, 49, is a former construction worker from Oregon City who became homeless several years ago after drinking too much and using methamphetamine.
Layman and Larson, 46, came to Dignity Village more than two years ago.
Layman said he no longer uses meth and doesn’t drink to excess. However, he said he has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The voices that once bothered him have been minimized since he started taking medication, Layman said.
Living at Dignity Village “has given me a second chance to get back on my feet,” he said.
The exterior of the couple’s cabin, which was built by a church group a couple of years ago, is painted tan and has white shutters around its only window. A faded U.S. flag on a pole sits in a planter box in front of the small covered porch.
At about 120 square feet, their cabin has only enough room for a double bed, the couple’s clothes, hung on wooden poles from the ceiling rafters, and a few dressers.
A wall-mounted propane heater keeps the cabin from getting too cold during the winter.
The couple has a gas-powered electric generator, which they occasionally use to operate a small flat-screen TV.
“We haven’t been able to turn it on for a year because we haven’t been able to afford the gas,” Layman said.
Similar to other residents, the couple keeps food in coolers and cooks meals on a propane grill outside their cabin.
They wash dishes in the outdoor kitchen in the center of the village, next to the community room.
Residents share one shower and four portable toilets.
Each resident is required to pay $25 a month to help the village with its operating costs.
All residents are required to work on communal tasks and they are encouraged to participate in village decisions, said Gibson, the vice chairman.
The village is governed by an 11-member council that picks a four-member board.
The village’s nonprofit corporation has an annual budget of about $17,000 a year, Gibson said.
Money comes from the residents’ monthly fees, and is supplemented by selling recycled wood and metal, donated items on eBay, and vegetables from the gardens.
Residents must volunteer at least 10 hours a week on community tasks such as security details, weeding gardens, taking apart donated appliances for their scrap metal, sorting recyclables and sweeping asphalt.
“There is something for everybody to do,” Larson said.
Layman, who admits he loves to talk, gives tours to visitors. He also works away from the village at a couple of part-time jobs, including helping set up Saturday Market in downtown Portland.
City plays minor role
The roots of Dignity Village date to December 2000, when eight homeless people pitched tents on public property in downtown Portland. After moving around for a year, the group arrived at the city-owned property on Northwest Sunderland Road, next to the Columbia River state prison. A bus stop is nearby.
City officials and camp leaders eventually agreed that the camp could stay as long as it covered its expenses, housed no more than 60 people and adhered to safety and sanitation standards.
The city spent nearly $200,000 to prepare the site for the village, including the installation of storm and sanitary sewer lines and electric service for the common areas and buildings.
These days, Dignity Village is a relatively small expense to city government. Last year, for example, the city incurred $25,000 in costs, mainly for the work of city officials on Dignity Village-related matters, including fire and building inspections, said Sally Erickson, a manager in the Portland Housing Bureau.
There is a difference of opinion between Dignity Village leaders and city officials.
Portland officials say the village is supposed to provide a temporary place for people to stabilize their lives before moving to permanent homes.
Under a proposed contract renewal with Dignity Village that is to be presented to the Portland City Council before year’s end, city officials will require residents to leave after two years, Erickson said.
Gibson, Dignity Village’s vice chairman, said exceptions to the two-year limit should be made for residents who are “actively looking” for housing or who are on housing waiting lists.
Moving formerly homeless people to permanent housing can’t be rushed, Larson said.
“For most of us, it’s been a transition,” she said. “Maybe not as fast as a transition that the city would like to see, but within three to four years most people can get back on their feet.”
Homeless village advances
The Eugene City Council directs its staff to come back by Oct. 31 with siting options for a 30-family encampment
With a new sense of urgency, the Eugene City Council on Wednesday asked its staff to identify potential sites for a homeless village.
Councilors voted 7-1 to direct city officials to produce by Oct. 31 a list of city-controlled sites that could serve as a transitional housing area for 30 homeless adults and their children.
Councilors said that doesn’t mean they eventually would allow a newly formed nonprofit called Opportunity Village Eugene to establish a homeless village on a property. Rather, councilors said, they want details about potential locations before deciding whether to move forward.
“The more information we get will help guide our ultimate decision, whether we accept the idea or reject the idea,” Councilor George Brown said.
The Rev. Dan Bryant and other homeless advocates for months have asked the council to provide land so they can build simple structures for homeless people, similar to Portland’s Dignity Village.
Earlier in the summer, they suggested that such a village be established on city property at West 13th Avenue and Chambers Street. That generated intense opposition from the area’s residents.
The council’s Wednesday decision continues a focus on homelessness that was inspired by last year’s Occupy Eugene encampment and the subsequent recommendations of a mayor-appointed committee. The committee’s most controversial proposal was to create a housing area for homeless people by Oct. 1, although committee members couldn’t agree where it should be located or how it would be managed.
Responding to previous City Council direction, city officials in recent months had put together a list that now numbers more than 300 potential housing sites.
City Manager Jon Ruiz, however, was reluctant to give the list to the council without a better idea of the council’s interest in a homeless village. Brown, who had become impatient with the city’s lack of progress, proposed that city officials produce a list of possible sites by month’s end.
After considerable discussion, councilors agreed with the request almost unanimously.
North-central Councilor Mike Clark cast the lone dissenting vote, saying the council needs more information about a homeless village, including any potential liability and risk for the city, before requesting potential sites.
“We have the cart before the horse,” he said.
Brown and other councilors asked city officials to cut the list to a manageable number, perhaps 20 or so.
City parks or properties regularly used for community events should be excluded from consideration, they said.
Potential sites should be city-owned or controlled, be at least one acre in size, be close to public transportation and bike paths, and be served by utilities, councilors decided.
West Eugene Councilor Pat Farr and northeast Councilor George Poling said the list should include information about potential neighborhood opposition. But Brown, from south-central Eugene, said city officials would have a “pretty full plate” with narrowing the site list by month’s end.
“We can’t get neighborhoods involved with a list of sites that we haven’t seen yet,” he said.
Other ways to alleviate homelessness are advancing in the council.
Earlier in the year, the city provided an additional $50,000 to St. Vincent de Paul so it can provide extra vehicle camping, as well as new tent camping for the homeless. St. Vincent de Paul manages the vehicle camping program for the city.
On Wednesday, councilors said they are interested in keeping the expanded program in place next year.
Bryant, pastor of First Christian Church and chairman of Opportunity Village Eugene, attended the council meeting.
He said he and other advocates have been waiting for some time for the council to request a list of possible village sites.
“It’s a step that will move us forward,” he said. “This will be a long community conversation.”
Eugene council studies pilot project for homeless families
If the Eugene City Council eventually endorses the idea of a transitional village for homeless people, it may start with a pilot program for homeless people with children.
The City Council on Wednesday discussed ways to alleviate homelessness. While no decisions were made, some councilors expressed support for transitional housing for families on publicly owned land.
But the council discussion raised more questions than it answered, showing that the council is far from figuring out which ideas it will pursue and in what manner.The council’s deliberation was the latest in a series of meetings on homelessness that were inspired by last year’s Occupy Eugene encampment and the subsequent recommendations of a mayor-appointed committee.
The committee’s most controversial proposal is to create a housing area for homeless people, though committee members did not agree on where the area should be located or how it would be managed.
Homeless advocates hope the City Council will support such a housing area, perhaps similar to Portland’s Dignity Village, where former homeless people live in cabin-like structures on city land.
Since July, city officials have been analyzing publicly owned land as potential sites for an encampment of some kind.
On Wednesday, officials said the list contained more than 400 publicly owned sites and that more work is needed to narrow the list.
City Manager Jon Ruiz told councilors that he asked his staff not to bring the council a list of sites because it’s unclear what type of homeless housing site they are interested in pursuing.
“What is it we are trying to accomplish and where?” Ruiz said.
A defined set of criteria for a homeless housing area would help his staff evaluate the suitability of sites, he said.
Southeast Councilor Alan Zelenka said he wants to start with a six-month pilot program that would allow 20 to 30 people to live on city-owned land in semi-permanent structures or tents.
The housing should be for homeless individuals, not families with children, he said.
The site should be located near a bus line, with water, sewer and electricity available, Zelenka said.
No drugs or alcohol would be allowed, Zelenka said, and the area should be self-governed.
“That’s my list that I would like to move forward,” he said. “Soon.”
Mayor Kitty Piercy said a homeless housing area would have a better chance at gaining public acceptance if it was used by homeless families.
Piercy suggested a pilot housing program for 10 families.
“What would generate broad community support?” she said, before answering her own question. “Families with kids would be at the top of that list.”
City officials will continue analyzing potential housing sites and seek more information from councilors and the mayor before meeting again with the council next month.
Village without a home
Backers of a permanent homeless camp face an uphill challenge
BY EDWARD RUSSO
Appeared in print: Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, page A1
Kelly Shelton and Barbara Douglas want a permanent home.
The homeless couple live in a 42-year-old trailer parked at the city-owned former Naval Reserve Center at West 13th Avenue and Chambers Street in Eugene. The three-acre site has become a battleground in the community’s debate on how to help homeless people.
St. Vincent de Paul manages the three-vehicle camping site, where Shelton, 57, and Douglas, 56, reside, near Cesar Chavez Elementary School.
The couple have been waiting months to get into a publicly subsidized apartment for low-income people.
“No matter where you go today, there are waiting lists,” said Shelton, a former truck driver who said he can no longer work because of tendinitis in a hand.
Some homeless advocates in Eugene want to provide a new type of place for struggling people such as Shelton and Douglas to live and, earlier this summer, they proposed putting it at the 13th and Chambers city property.
They want to create “Opportunity Village,” where people without homes, including families with children, would live in simple, hand-built structures.
The village would give residents a safe, legal place to live, advocates say. Helped by other residents and volunteers, the inhabitants would grow their food, seek employment or develop their entrepreneurial skills, the argument goes.
“It’s like the adage of teaching people to fish,” said the Rev. Dan Bryant, pastor at First Christian Church in downtown Eugene. “This is about teaching people how to fish. And you need a place to do that.”
But Bryant and other “Opportunity Village” proponents have found it easier to talk about the concept of pioneering a homeless community in Eugene than finding a place to start one.
Earlier this summer, Bryant and others suggested the former Naval Reserve Center property as a village site, but the idea sparked opposition from area residents.
Pat Waters, who lives within a block of the school with his wife and two young children, said homelessness is something for the entire community — not just one neighborhood — to address.
“This should be a community-wide discussion,” he said. “And the rest of the community should share the responsibility of dealing with this problem rather than isolating one neighborhood with the issue.”
The controversial proposal has generated a cautious response from some social-service agency directors and sparked soul-searching among residents about their views on homelessness.
Even Kitty Piercy, Eugene’s liberal mayor, has questions about the homeless housing proposal, which she called “kind of utopian.”
Advocates began talking about the 13th and Chambers property in order to fulfill their goal to have a homeless community opened by Oct. 1.
The idea for the camp first emerged last year during Occupy Eugene. The protest movement set up tents and tarp-covered structures in three city parks and on public property near the University of Oregon. It attracted scores of homeless people and activists before city officials shut it down last December, following the beating of a Florence man in the camp, who eventually died in the hospital.
The Opportunity Village concept is patterned after Portland’s Dignity Village, where former homeless people live in cabin-like structures on city land. But in Eugene, with opposition from residents and a cautious approach by city officials to the controversial proposal, advocates acknowledge that a homeless village will not be in place in Eugene by October.
Instead, they are shooting to have a site or possible sites identified by then, but that doesn’t look promising either.
Their efforts appear to be stalled at a time when officials say an apparently growing number of unhoused people in the Eugene-Springfield area have overwhelmed the community’s relatively small supply of homeless shelters.
Reduced government funding has dramatically cut the number of subsidized apartments for people who would otherwise be on the streets, social service agency directors say.
A broken system
The Eugene Mission, the largest homeless shelter in the metropolitan area, sometimes has 400 people spend the night, up from the usual summer count of 250.
The day shelter for homeless people on Highway 99 run by St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County serves about 200 people a day, nearly double from last summer.
“The system is completely broken,” said Terry McDonald, director of St. Vincent de Paul, which operates several programs for the homeless.
After the disbanding of the Occupy Eugene camp in Washington-Jefferson Park last December, Piercy appointed a 58-member panel to develop ideas to address the needs of homeless residents.
The group met six times and in March made several recommendations, including expanding existing services for the homeless. The committee also endorsed creating a homeless camp by Oct. 1, but members did not agree on where the camp would be located or how it would be managed.
In July, the City Council directed the city manager to evaluate possible locations for a homeless village and examine the code changes that would be needed to allow the construction of semi-permanent housing structures.
City officials are analyzing properties for a homeless housing area, most of them publicly owned land, said Michael Wisth, city grants manager.
The results will be presented to the City Council sometime in the near future, he said.
“We are just kind of looking at a lot of properties right now, and developing a matrix of the pros and cons of each site,” he said.
Wisth declined to name the potential locations, saying that the analysis was not complete.
“We are not promoting anything,” he said. “We are just trying to give council the most information about each site so they can make their decisions.”
In the Occupy Eugene aftermath, the city boosted funding to St. Vincent de Paul so it could increase the number of vehicle camping sites on public and private land. In spite of the additional sites, St. Vincent de Paul has 69 people on its waiting list.
Two of them are Daniel Nielsen and Bethany Short. They reside in a 27-year-old motor home parked on a city street close to Cesar Chavez School.
On a recent hot afternoon, Nielsen and Short, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child, lugged trash bags filled with empty cans and bottles to their motor home.
Nielsen, who also collects scrap metal and works odd jobs, said the RV has developed repeated mechanical problems. The motor home has cost more than $1,600 to fix since he bought it for $700 from St. Vincent de Paul, he said.
“I’ve dumped everything into this, and I’ve got nothing left,” Nielsen said.
Meanwhile, he’s hoping that he doesn’t get ticketed by police for parking the motor home on a city street.
Nielsen, 42, was convicted of raping an underage girl and spent 18 years in prison before being released three years ago.
If he can get the motor home fixed, Nielsen said he would move it to an RV park or to a St. Vincent de Paul managed vehicle camping site.
“I’m hoping that they can stick us on that grass over there,” he said, motioning to the site where Shelton and Douglas live, along with two other homeless campers.
Shelton and Douglas have lived on the property since last May.
Joseph Squadrito, 35, lives next to them in a 33-foot motor home.
All of them said a village for the homeless would be helpful, but only if security was a priority and criminals and troublemakers were kept out.
Shelton and Douglas were living in a St. Vincent de Paul-managed vehicle camping site in Alton Baker Park last fall when the Occupy Eugene camp moved in from the downtown Park Blocks.
“It got to be ridiculous,” Shelton said. “People were doing drugs and fighting. I don’t want to be around people like that.”
A livability issue
Piercy, Eugene’s mayor, said she respects the efforts of the homeless-village advocates.
The growing number of homeless people is increasing the public cost of law enforcement and health care, she said.
“And if you have people living on doorsteps, it has an impact on a city’s livability,” Piercy said. “Whether you approach it from a human service or economic side, we should want to do something. It will make us a better community.”
Yet, Piercy said, she still has questions about the homeless village, including who would be allowed to live there, how it would be operated, who would be liable for accidents or injuries on the site, and how it would affect the surrounding area.
Piercy, a former schoolteacher who is married to a retired Eugene School District administrator, also asked: “Should such a village be located next to a school?”
“I feel very determined that this discussion will lead to improvements,” she said. “Whether it’s a village or something else remains to be seen.”
Bobbie Willis, a teacher at South Eugene High School, lives near Cesar Chavez school with her husband and two young children.
Like Waters, she has concerns about a homeless village near the school.
The blue collar neighborhood already has transients who congregate along the Fern Ridge Bike Path and Amazon Creek, she said.
While she said she doesn’t “see homeless people as criminals or pariahs,” Willis said she’s concerned that such stereotypes about the village could depress the value of their home.
If the city wants to allow a homeless community, Willis said, it should first try one in a nonresidential area.
“If it works, we can set it up in multiple neighborhoods,” she said.
Willis said most of her neighbors share her concerns, but she knows some disagree with her and favor the village idea.
Willis described herself as a politically liberal, socially conscious person who is sympathetic to the needs of the poor.
Still, she can’t get comfortable with the idea of Opportunity Village in her neighborhood.
“It made me think about what it is to be a liberal thinking person,” she said. “But if I have concerns about Opportunity Village, I think I am within reason to question whether this site is appropriate.”